Women with Sleep Apnea Suffer More Brain Damage, New Study Finds
A first-of-its-kind study out of the UCLA School of Nursing discovered that women with sleep apnea are more likely to suffer a higher degree of brain damage than men with sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep, sometimes hundreds of times a night. During each obstruction, the oxygen level in the blood drops, which can result in damage to the body’s cells.
An estimated 18 million Americans have sleep apnea, including one in four women over 65, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Several recent studies have linked OSA to health disorders, specifically in women. Sleep apnea has been linked to dementia in older women. And another observational study found that women with untreated severe OSA are 3.5 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than women without OSA.
The new UCLA study
UCLA has been on the cutting edge of sleep apnea research. About 10 years ago, the same UCLA research team that conducted the new study was the first to show that men with OSA have damage to their brain cells.
The latest multi-year study, entitled “Sex Differences in White Matter Alterations Accompanying Obstructive Sleep Apnea” was a co-investigation by UCLA’s Brain Research Institute and the departments of neurobiology and neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and Mary Woo of the UCLA School of Nursing. All of the work for the study was performed at UCLA, with financial support provided by a grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research.
For the study, the researchers studied patients diagnosed with OSA at the UCLA Sleep Laboratory. They compared the nerve fibers in the patients’ brains, known as “white matter,” to the nerve fibers of people without OSA or other sleep problems. The goal was to find the differences in brain damage, if any, between men and women with obstructive sleep apnea.
Results of the study
The study revealed that women are actually more affected by sleep apnea than men. Additionally, women with OSA have more severe brain damage than men suffering from a similar condition. The women with sleep apnea also showed higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms.
Specifically, the study found that women were impacted in the cingulum bundle and the anterior cingulate cortex areas in the front of the brain involved in decision-making and mood regulation.
Chief investigator Paul Macey said, “Doctors should consider that OSA in women may be more problematic and therefore need earlier treatment in women than men.”
Macey continued, “With this finding as a foundation, the next step is for researchers to untangle the timing of the brain changes and find out if treating sleep apnea can help the brain. Did sleep apnea cause the brain damage, did the brain damage lead to the sleep disorders, or do the common comorbidities, such as depression, dementia or cardiovascular issues, cause the brain damage, which in turn leads to sleep apnea.”
For more information, read the article, “Women with sleep apnea have higher degree of brain damage than men, UCLA study shows.”
Suspect you have sleep apnea? Don’t wait — get checked
Researchers estimate that up to 85 percent of people with severe sleep apnea were not diagnosed prior to the study.
If you suspect that you may have sleep apnea, get checked out by a qualified doctor who specializes in sleep disorders. Many times, sleep apnea can be misdiagnosed as chronic fatigue, insomnia, depression, or some other non-specific condition, so be specific about the symptoms you are experiencing.
Don’t wait it could save your life, or someone you love.
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